Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, clever video game, dreary drama.

Black Mirror:Bandersnatch.

Erst­while tele­vi­sion crit­ic and screen­writer Char­lie Brook­er launched Black Mir­ror in 2011 on Chan­nel Four, and in 2015 he and it moved over to Net­flix for its third season. 

Sort of a cross between the Twi­light Zone and Tales of the Unex­pect­ed, each episode presents a one-off, stand alone fable that explores a tech­no­log­i­cal dystopia set in the very near future.  Invari­ably, the sto­ries revolve around a soci­etal What if ques­tion that is tak­en to its log­i­cal extreme.

The top­ics that each episode explore are momen­tar­i­ly intrigu­ing, and it’s all glar­ing­ly au courant, that is to say trendible, so the first twen­ty min­utes are gen­er­al­ly fair­ly enter­tain­ing. But invari­ably the episode soon fiz­zles out, because Brook­er is not real­ly con­cerned with, and there­fore not much good at, dra­ma. He’s all too eas­i­ly daz­zled by the clev­er­ness of his ini­tial con­ceit. And his lat­est, Ban­der­snatch, con­tin­ues the trend.

Black Mir­ror.

Nom­i­nal­ly a fea­ture film, it’s his and Netflix’s attempt at that much her­ald­ed hybrid, the inter­ac­tive film. The idea of an inter­ac­tive film emerged about 25 years ago as the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion took off, and there were a num­ber of fac­tors that brought it into being.

First, DVDs replaced video, and with them came the advent of the delet­ed scene. At the same time, a new gen­er­a­tion of video game con­soles arrived, offer­ing mas­sive­ly more sophis­ti­cat­ed graph­ics. And the evolv­ing world of Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty promised an even more impres­sive visu­al land­scape, from which who knew what might emerge. 

So view­ers began to ask them­selves, what if we could decide what hap­pens in a sto­ry? Could we choose a ver­sion of the film with those delet­ed scenes, instead of the one that the film mak­ers end­ed up decid­ing on? And if so, what oth­er things could we change about the sto­ries we watch? Ban­der­snatch is the real­iza­tion of that fantasy.

Your first deci­sion, to ease you in.

So, as ever, for the first twen­ty min­utes, you’re intrigued. You get ten sec­onds to make a black or white, Yes or No deci­sion. And the sto­ry pro­gress­es, and ends, accord­ing to the deci­sions you make. Except it doesn’t.

Inevitably, if you make the “wrong” choice or choic­es, the film ends pre­ma­ture­ly, and you’re offered the oppor­tu­ni­ty to go back to your “wrong” deci­sion, and choose the oth­er option. Of course you could polite­ly decline, turn off your devise and pick up a book instead. But obvi­ous­ly you don’t, you go back to fol­low the alter­na­tive sto­ry lines, with their choice of end­ings, to see what oth­er ways the sto­ry could have gone. 

Our hero’s been offered a deal, what does he do?

Which is an inter­est­ing idea, and it’s all ter­ri­bly meta and fright­ful­ly clever. But as soon as you can go back and change your deci­sion, that deci­sion no longer has any weight or val­ue. So any sense of ten­sion and all the dra­ma is imme­di­ate­ly neutered. 

When one char­ac­ter says to our hero, one of us is going to jump off this build­ing, who’s it going to be…And the action freezes for a jagged 10 sec­onds, and youhave to decide who, that’s exhil­a­rat­ing, and fright­en­ing and thrilling. But as soon as you can go back, and make the oth­er deci­sion, just to see what hap­pens, before you know it, you’ll be glanc­ing at your phone to see what you’ve missed since you start­ed play­ing the game. 

And there’s the rub. Because inter­ac­tive dra­mas already exist. They are called video games, which is what this is. And as a video game, it’s real­ly inter­est­ing. Because what it shows is that the future of video games lies not with VR, but with live action. Ban­der­snatch is what video games will look like the day after tomorrow. 

Which is a real­ly inter­est­ing polemic. And a polemic, like all the oth­er Black Mir­ror episodes, is what this should have remained as. Had it appeared as an arti­cle in Van­i­ty Fair, or in one of the Guardian sup­ple­ments, it would have pro­vid­ed for a real­ly inter­est­ing dis­trac­tion. But as a dra­ma, nev­er mind a 90 minute plus dra­ma, it’s woe­ful­ly dull and pro­gres­sive­ly tedious.

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